Chapter 2

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Bella stared, unseeing, down at her hands in her lap, thoughts ricocheting through her head once again. She’d held Edward off for months, and she knew her time was coming to an end. She could feel it in her bones, much like the cold that was seeping through her coat.

She rubbed her frozen hands together and then paused as she considered the bare third finger of her left hand and breathed a quiet sigh of relief.

Ever since Edward’s proposal, she had kept her bedroom window locked and had driven herself to school and work, knowing he wasn’t far away, but not looking for him too intently.

She had graduated soon after his proposal. Charlie had been so proud. She had graciously accepted the cell phone he had given her, and even allowed Edward to have the number, as long as all of the Cullens also had it, and she received their numbers in return.

Victoria had made a mistake when she made so many newborns in Seattle to try and get at the weak, human Bella. The Volturi had noticed the activity and had sent a cadre of guards to handle them.

Luckily, none of the guard had bothered to show up in Forks, though Aro had called Carlisle to inform him of the Volturi’s success in eradicating the problem.

He also happened to inquire about Bella’s health.

Bella felt as if she’d dodged another bullet when that had occurred. One threat had been removed, but the other hung heavy over all of their heads. With her new, somewhat fatalistic attitude, she had gone on about her little human life, very aware the clock was ticking.

In spite of it, or because of it, she wasn’t sure, she had chosen her own classes at the little Peninsula College, and with Charlie’s help, had bought used books and other supplies she had needed. The brand new text books that Edward had surreptitiously placed in her truck had been sold and the money had been hidden in one of Charlie’s old tackle boxes.

Alice had been a hovering pastel shadow—a shadow with a permanent frown line between her perfectly shaped eyebrows. Bella had managed to avoid making a definite decision regarding Edward’s proposal. Instead, she frequently made multiple inconsequential ones just to keep Alice confused and guessing. She’d also refused any shopping trips unless Emmett, Rosalie, or Jasper were included, and when Alice would attempt to get Bella to stay for a girl’s night, she would immediately text one of the others to see if they would be there. Bella knew those pajama parties were a thinly veiled attempt to get Bella to spend the night so Alice could suddenly dash off and leave her alone with Edward.

Emmett had been thrilled, Jasper gave her the occasional encouraging nod, and even Rosalie had warmed up and seemed impressed.

She chuckled softly at the memory of Emmett’s enthusiasm for girl’s night. It turned out he loved watching Bella eat cold pizza while they mocked and jeered at crappy giant bug movies and corny old westerns.

And through it all, Edward had hovered as close as he dared, baffled rejection showing on his face as he incessantly looked to Alice for her visions.

Bella had also reduced her time at the Cullens’ home to spend more time with Charlie. She’d even gone fishing with him a few times.

She had been happy to spend that time with him. Though none of the Cullens ever spoke of it because she knew Edward would not want to upset her, she knew the Volturi wouldn’t wait forever. Her time with her father would soon come to an end.

One way or another, her human life would end.

With those thoughts whirling through her head, she realized that over the last few months, a strange calm had settled over her as she had truly accepted that fate.

“What are you doing out here in the cold, honey?” asked a wavering voice.

Startled from her chaotic thoughts, Bella looked up from her nearly frozen fingers that had been twisting in her lap. Standing next to Bella’s bench was a short, round figure, heavily bundled in a calf-length, dark grey wool coat.

From the timbre of the speaker’s voice, that was neither high nor low, Bella imagined the person was very old, but that was all. She couldn’t even tell from the shape if it was a man or a woman. A bright orange, knit scarf was wrapped multiple times around the person’s neck, the ends tucked into the collar of the coat. Pulled firmly down over the person’s ears was a wide, fuzzy, zebra-print hat with cottony tufts of white hair peeking beneath the edge. All that showed of the speaker’s face was a pair of faded brown eyes magnified through thick bifocals.

Noticing an American flag pin on the wide lapel of the stranger’s coat, Bella began to think the person might be a little old man, even with the zebra-striped hat; until she took in the leopard print snow boots and the bright pink mittens resting on top of an ornately carved walking stick.

“Uh … uh, just thinking,” Bella stammered out, not knowing what to say. She jumped up from the bench and shoved her hands in her coat pockets. “Did you, uh, need help with something?”

“No, no, honey, I’m fine. You can call me Gertrude, by the way. I walk out here past the high school every day, though it takes me longer and longer. Mind if I have a seat? The few blocks I walk to get here wears me out.” Without waiting for Bella to answer, Gertrude shuffled closer to the bench and eased herself stiffly down with a soft grunt. “Is this your book, honey?” Gertrude lifted a well-worn paperback from the bench seat and studied the cover. “Romeo and Juliet. I never read it, but I have seen a couple of the movies.”

Bella grabbed the proffered book, not even sure why she had brought it along, and spun it in her hands. At a complete loss, Bella shifted from foot to foot as she watched the old woman prop her cane against the curved metal arm of the bench and then clapped and rubbed her mittened hands together.

“Have a seat, honey. Don’t let me disturb your thinking. Just need a breather before I start back.” Peering up at Bella, the lines at the corners of Gertrude’s eyes crinkled even more deeply as if she were smiling.

Bella hadn’t expected anyone to be out and about, even though, for once, it wasn’t raining or snowing. The unusual cold sank right through her hooded coat and down into her, but she had welcomed it, thinking none of the students from Forks High would be hanging around.

Bella hadn’t wanted to share the bench, but she didn’t want to go home yet. She knew Edward and some of the other Cullens were somewhere nearby, protecting her, and if she went home, the others would most likely go home and Edward would lurk in the forest behind her house.

She could almost feel them watching her and wondered why Edward hadn’t slunk from the shadows to approach her. Perhaps he hadn’t because he hadn’t wanted to be rejected again. Wherever Edward was, she knew Alice wouldn’t be far away. She thought perhaps Alice felt the same way.

She felt there was one other who was nearby. She wasn’t sure who it might be. Emmett, Rosalie, Esme, or Jasper. They would be concerned about her safety, but they respected her enough to give her a little space.

She made a very firm decision to sit down next to the old woman.

“What’s got a pretty girl like you thinking so hard out here in the cold?” Gertrude adjusted her hat, and pulled the orange scarf from over her mouth.

A tremulous smile crossed Bella’s face as she set the book on her lap and then wrapped her arms around herself. “Not much. Just life and … uh … just life.” She had nearly said life and death. Her life wouldn’t last much longer, but she didn’t need to tell Gertrude that.

The woman let out a raspy cackle. “Let me tell you, child, I’ve seen a lot of life—a lot of years. Why would you worry about that? You’re just at the beginning of yours.”

Bella couldn’t think of anything to say, so she shrugged and clasped her hands together over the ragged paperback.

“I remember being young and starting out.” Gertrude cackled again, leaned forward, and patted Bella’s knee. “Only in those days, starting out meant getting hitched to your beau you met at the church social or at school and having babies.” Gertrude smiled again, plucked a tissue from her pocket, lifted off her glasses, and swiped at her eyes. Bella didn’t know if the tears were caused by the cold or the memories. “Ernest was a strong young man and so good looking! We were eighteen when we got married. And there were a lot of people there, too—his parents and four brothers, and my parents, three sisters, and brother. My other brother had drowned at a church picnic when we were children. He’d eaten lunch and gone right in the water to swim. Momma had told him not to, but he didn’t listen. He drowned.” She shook her head sadly. “Well, anyway, about ten months after my wedding, we had our first son. Just a year later, we had our second. Then along came the third.” She smiled broadly and slapped her hands down on her thighs.

“All boys?” Bella asked.

“Oh, yes. Ernest Jr., Paul, and Martin. It wasn’t easy washing all those diapers, taking care of the house, and working the farm. My oldest sister got married before I did, and they lived next door. I helped with their farm, too. There wasn’t a lot of work around, but my Ernest was lucky. He was a paid firefighter for the city, and he did a bit of carpentry, too.” Gertrude smiled wistfully at her memories. “He was so handsome in his uniform! We had another boy, Russell, but then Ernest felt the need to join the Army because The War was heating up. He went to boot camp, came home on leave, and nine months later I had our last boy, Gerald. He didn’t get to see his daddy for a couple years because of The War—”

“You were home alone with five little boys?” Bella asked, incredulous.

“I worked at the radio plant at night, too. The neighbor’s middle boy came and stayed with them at night. All the men were gone and factories needed the workers. My mother and father lived nearby and were a big help, along with my sister, but she had six kids of her own to take care of. My other sisters and brother didn’t live too far away, but we didn’t have the money to buy gasoline for the car to go visit!” Gertrude smiled reassuringly at Bella. “It worked out. I was one of the lucky ones—Ernest came home. Not long afterward, my parents passed. I never even knew my grandparents. They died before I was born. Back in those days, they didn’t have the medicines for things like they do now.”

Gertrude grabbed her cane and tapped it on the ground. “I had a couple cousins catch the measles and they died. A second cousin caught Scarlet Fever and died. But, don’t you worry, honey. That was a long time ago.”

Bella shivered and clutched her coat more tightly around her.

Gertrude tugged at her brightly colored scarf. “Ernest and I were married for fifty-eight years. He got the cancer. It was a blessing that he passed quickly.”

“But, don’t you miss him?”

“I miss him every day, sweetie, but that’s how life is.”

“Did you get remarried?” Had the old woman lived so long alone?

“Oh, no. I had a couple of offers, but I’d been married once to a wonderful man and that was enough for me. I’m not saying there weren’t other good men out there. Had I been younger though …” Gertrude trailed off and leaned over to pat Bella’s knee again. “I had my boys. They had all joined the service, but the three younger ones had been sent to Viet Nam. This country does seem to stick its nose in all over, don’t it?” She chuckled, shook her head, and looked off across the street into the tree-filled lawn of the spired church. “My boys served their country and they all came back. All five of them got married, but they didn’t have as many children, of course. Ernest Jr.’s wife died. She had the cancer bad, poor thing. It wasn’t that long ago my youngest boy passed. I think he picked something up in Viet Nam—that’s why he died so young. Then six months later Ernest Jr. died—complications of diabetes. A couple years after that, my middle boy died. He’d been in Viet Nam, too.” Gertrude raised her eyebrows as she tipped her head down and gave Bella a knowing look.

Bella was dumbfounded. “You … you had to bury three of your children?”

Gertrude sighed and briskly rubbed at her thigh. “Everybody dies and leaves eventually, honey. You leave them or they leave you. Sometimes it doesn’t happen in the right order and younger folks leave before the older ones. That’s just how it goes sometimes. I only have one younger sister left and she’s been ill. None of Ernest’s brothers are still living. Sometimes I wonder why I’ve lived so long, but it’s been a good life,” she said, nodding slowly. “I’m still kickin’, and I’m going to keep on kickin’. Just a little slower and not quite as high as I used to.”

Bella stared at the woman with wide eyes.

“Now, don’t you go looking like that, honey. You have your whole life ahead of you.”

“But … but so many deaths … how do you …?”

“Nothing lasts forever.” She shrugged lightly. “We loved each other. They were all a bright blessing to my life, and you just keep going. That’s all you can really ask for.” The woman set her cane between her legs and used it to brace against as she heaved her round body up from the bench with a breathy grunt. She turned slowly in a circle, looking up into the darkening sky over the church, the little shops and buildings down the street, and at the high school behind them. “It’s getting colder, so I should start back to the house. These old bones don’t move as fast as they once did, and I have to feed my cats.” She tugged the scarf back up over her nose and mouth and patted down her faux zebra-fur hat. “Now, don’t look so concerned. I haven’t turned into a crazy cat lady. I only have two, and they’ll probably outlive me.” Her muffled chuckle was low as she turned away. She took a shuffling step, stopped, and turned back. “You’re such a pretty girl—you’ll find a handsome young man of your own, and you’ll live a good, long life with him.” The crow’s feet deepened around her eyes as she smiled again at Bella. “Have a good evening, sweetie. You should head home. It’s the longest night of the year and it’ll be dark soon.” She scuffed her leopard-print boots as she made her unhurried way down the sidewalk, her cane tapping out a steady beat.

Bella stared after the old woman, who seemed to have a slight limp, and wondered if all old people rambled on that way. Maybe they did because they didn’t have many friends or relatives left to talk to.

How could Gertrude laugh? There had been so many deaths throughout her life, and she had said it had been a good one. But, had the old lady’s life really been any different from anyone else’s? Well, Bella hadn’t known many people who had buried three of their five children, a daughter-in-law, her husband, and … so many of her relatives. But Gertrude had survived it all. She’d gotten through it and seemed all right, but she had mentioned her last sister was sick. That seemed to be how most people went. Like when Edward had proposed to her and she had seen the future he had chosen for her. Despite his relentless attention and conscientious care, she, like most humans, would weaken, sicken, and die. That was only if he was successful at hiding her.

If she chose Edward—accepted his proposal—she would have to appear to die so Edward could smuggle her away. She doubted she’d be able to maintain a relationship with her parents. But if she did, she would be exposing them to further danger. The Volturi would find her through them.

Any humans she interacted with could be in danger.

As long as she was human, she would be a prisoner. Edward would keep her body alive and secreted away. If he was unsuccessful, when the Volturi finally caught up with her, how many lives would be lost?

Whether she was human or became a vampire, she would have to appear to die. Would her parents get through it? She thought they would. They wouldn’t have a choice.

They had survived the death of their own parents.

Edward had said to her not so long ago, “After a few decades, everyone you know will be dead.” That was going to happen whether she was a human or a vampire. Of course, Edward had only said that to try and deter her. Again. As if staying human meant no one she knew would ever die.

She even knew of vampires who had died. Jasper and Emmett had killed James. Laurent had been killed by the wolves. The Volturi had taken out Victoria and all her newborns.

Before James, it had been hinted at that Jasper had killed many. He had killed hundreds of humans to turn them into vampires. Later, he had ended most of them.

Edward wasn’t thinking clearly. He knew the Volturi would be after his entire family. They all knew what would happen. There really was no choice, no matter what Edward had said. Either Bella was killed by them—ending her human life or Edward would take her and lock her away to protect her—ending any sort of normal human life. Or she could become a vampire. Her human parents would mourn her, but it would help to protect them and the vampire family she loved so well.

She wanted to live, but the normal, happy human life Edward doggedly spoke of was no longer an option. It wasn’t going to happen.

She wanted to choose the course of her own life.

She stood from the frozen bench, absently holding the old copy of Romeo and Juliet to her chest, and adjusted the hood over her hair, pulling it more closely about her face, and breathed in the bitingly cold air.

Clearing her mind, she grasped onto the decision she had refused to think consciously of and set her entire focus on it.

I will not marry you, Edward Cullen.

She ignored the nagging little voice in the back of her mind that chastised her for taking so long, and she pushed away the guilt she felt at knowing they had all been waiting for her to make her decision.

She slowly breathed in and out with profound relief, and stilled her mind to try and sense which of the Cullens might be nearby. She knew they had been watching her, and she was reasonably sure she knew who they were.

Of the Cullens, there were only four who were pragmatic and realistic enough to know what had to be done. Emmett would probably accidentally kill her while Rosalie would kill her on purpose to save her mate, her family, and their chosen way of life.

Bella couldn’t blame her for that.

That left two who would be strong enough to bite her and turn her into a vampire.

Carlisle would never go against Edward’s wishes, even knowing Edward was wrong and putting the entire family in jeopardy. Again.

That left only one.

She glanced again at the faded cover of the book. She had been childishly enchanted by the hero, the heroine, and the so-called romance of it all for too long. They were both dead before they had even begun.

Ended.

Gone.

They had chosen death over life. What had been the point?

She would choose life. Her life. She sighed as she dropped the old tale on the bench and turned away from the high school where she knew Edward would have chosen to hide. They had met there after all.

She looked down the quiet street and saw Alice step from the recessed doorway of a little shop. She gave Bella a cautious smile and nodded toward the old stone church across the street.

Alice had seen her decision, knew it was the right one—the best one for all involved—and would help her to accomplish it.

Bella faced the old church across the street, took her keys from her pocket, and lifted them.

In the space of a single human heartbeat, the tall vampire was beside her, his hand outstretched, palm up.

She dropped the keys into his hand and his long fingers curled slowly around them. Her gaze rose to meet the tranquil understanding in his warm amber eyes. A lock of his golden hair fell forward as he tipped his head down in an abbreviated bow.

“You’ve made the right choice, Bella.”

“I know I have, Jasper.”

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.. the end ..


Credits:

“After a few decades, everyone you know will be dead.” ~ Edward Cullen to Bella Swan in the movie The Twilight Saga: Eclipse.

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